A nook of a place

Opening night at a book oasis.

Opening night at a book oasis.

It was strange.  There was nary a sign on the building nor any other indication of a happening.  It was like a flash mob had descended on 300 West Camelback last night for the opening of what anymore is a rare business in Phoenix.  There is again, at long last, a seller of new books in the heart of a city often disparaged as “America’s Largest Smalltown” for lacking substance and sophistication.

Just think new books, hardbound and soft, shelves and shelves of them within a nook.  That’s lower case nook.   No Kindle, no Nook here, not that I saw anyway.  Caught reading digitized, the offender would no doubt have been strung up in full view from a rafter above the Classical section, the sight drawing tee-hees from those stooled at the beer and wine bar not far from the cash registers.

What a god-send in a universe gone mad with its wirelessness!

The new place, Changing Hands, fills a new-book void left by the demise in February 2011 of super-sized Borders Books and Music a few miles away on East Camelback Road.   After Borders slouched off into bankruptcy and ultimately death, there was the added insult of its former space being taken over by a rug store.  A rug store!

A magical and blurring moment in front of Changing Hands.

A magical and blurring moment in front of Changing Hands.

The new store’s parking lot was crammed to the max, so we parked several blocks north in a residential area of condos and apartments, then walked down Third Avenue to the store, which is housed with an interesting restaurant,  Southern Rail, and its award-winning chef, Justin Beckett.

Nebra bolted from the store when talk floated that cops planned to tow cars parked on residential streets.  No sweat.

Parking woes may be alleviated, even after locals get their permit program under way  and violators exposed for the inconsiderate, all-consuming book lovers they are deemed.  Nebra heard the City has given permission for use of the so-called “Kiss and Ride” parking lot on the other side of the street.  The lot is designated for light-rail users but has a reputation as a drop-off point for passengers rather than for actual parking.

This is Changing Hands’s second store.  The original remains in Tempe, the university suburb to the southeast.  The business goes back to 1974, five years before my arrival in the arid lands.   Like Phoenix rising from the ashes, Changing Hands II rose from the ruins of a once-popular restaurant known as Newton’s Beef Eaters.  I ate there a few times in the 1980s.  It must have rung nostalgic with the bookstore owner, Gayle Shanks.  The eatery’s old oven is preserved in a far and yet-empty corner of the store and a sign carved in cement by the front door walkway says “Beef Eaters.”  The building along with the restaurant and the coming “Southwest Gardener” is known of course as The Newton.  Books readers love stuff like that, symbolic gestures to the long-ago.

The "Ea" from "Beef Eaters," a homage to the former restaurant.

The “Ea” from “Beef Eaters”sign on walkway,  a homage to the former restaurant.

If I had a goal other than simply being there on Opening Day, it was to buy something so I would have a receipt commemorating the event.  It was then I began to notice the store’s short-comings.

Since we are planning a trip to Chicago and Lake Michigan this summer, I searched for the maps and Travel section and finally needed assistance.  They were together in a busy corner.  But, alas, I found few maps and nothing on Chicago among the small inventory.  I guess patrons of Changing Hands don’t hit the road much.  Hmmm.  Instead of road, I first wrote “roach,” perhaps thinking of another popular pastime undertaken by some book readers.

I then headed to Fiction and came across the James Salter collection which consisted of five books under the same title, “All That Is.”  I read Salter’s “Solo Faces” a year ago and enjoyed it.  But how many have heard of Salter?  Is it worth five books when the Hemingway collection is so puny?  In Hemingway, you have one of the giants of American literature and yet I saw only his non-fiction bullfighting extravaganza, “Death in The Afternoon” on the shelf.

I ended up selecting a paperback copy of Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle” for no other reason that I’m attuned with a blurb I read on the back of the book:  It is a satire “on modern man and his madness.”  I took the book to the cashier, stood in line for about a minute and handed a young brunette my credit card.

“I love Vonnegut,” she said.  Her name is Tanya.

“You want to know how much I love Vonnegut?”

Without giving me a chance to answer, she exposed a tattoo on her left arm.  It showed “Goodbye Blue Monday” and had a border around it.

“It’s from Breakfast of Champions,” she went on.

“Well,” I said, “I’ll take that as a good omen for me and this book.”  There I was with a camera on my shoulder and it was not until much later that I realized I’d missed an opportunity.

The menu for Southern Rail.

The menu for Southern Rail.

Tucked inside “Cat’s Cradle” was a bookmark regarding the business’s longevity.  “Life begins at 40,” it said.

On the back of the bookmark was a list of 10:  “Here’s what you just did!”

“You kept dollars in our local economy, you embraced what makes us unique, you created local jobs, you helped the environment (what?), you nurtured community, you conserved tax dollars (by not buying from an online seller), you created more choice, you took advantage of our expertise, you invested in entrepreneurship” and lastly, “you made us a destination.”

I did all that with my $15 acquisition?  None of the good reasons mentioned mine:  “You satisfied your curiosity.”

In any case, I wish Changing Hands the best, though I am skeptical the new store will last long.  I see too many young people glued to their digitized devices, seemingly hypnotized in a world of selfies and constant contact.

And that bodes poorly not only for the new guy on the block.








Art on the slopes

Nebra's earrings, created by Lindsay Livingston.

Nebra’s earrings, created by Lindsay Livingston.

The old Arizona mining town of Jerome is not only Ghost City.  It is a haven for artists and those who sell their wares in small boutiques, jewelries and studios on the slopes of the Black Hills overlooking the Verde River Valley to the north.

After our hike on the nearby high mesa called Mingus Mountain, Nebra wanted to stop in town to shop.  She first shopped at Arum Jewelry, a small place on Main Street that sells the exquisite wares of local artisans.

There, Nebra purchased two pairs of earrings designed by Lindsay Livingston, a silversmith who works out of Cottonwood, the valley city beneath Jerome.  Ms. Livingston specializes in jewelry made from old pieces of pottery that she either finds or that are given to her.  The sherds are touted as coming from dinnerware used by long-ago mining families in Jerome and Clarkdale, which is another valley town near Cottonwood.

But there is more.

Jerome store front and reflected clouds.

Jerome store front and reflected clouds.

If you want to sample what the town offers in way of artwork, take the Jerome Art Walk, 5-8 pm,  on the first Saturday of each month.   The Walk’s map lists 23 studios and galleries with diverse offerings such as oil paintings, leather designs, clothing, pottery etc.  There’s even Nellie Bly, a shop that deals in kaleidoscopes and art glass.

And that’s not to mention 16 eateries of various kinds.  All in a town of less than 500 residents.

Sign along Main Street.

Sign along Main Street.

Even a walk around town draws interest with its old homes, museums and historical sites.  Think I will go back soon.

Metalwork outside home.

Metalwork outside home.






Room 11, Ghost City

Main Street and moon near sunset in Jerome.

Main Street and moon near sunset in Jerome.

At night, coming down from the north on the Interstate into the deep Verde Valley, eerie lights wink at you from high on a dark wall of mountains called the Black Hills.   Those lights emanate from the old Arizona mining town, Jerome, a place that likes to bill itself as Ghost City.  And those lights can suck you in.

In touristy Jerome, ghosts are a good thing, and this little artsy community of 444 residents is not bashful about promoting the nebulous spirits, be they benign or evil.  At least one website claims the town is among the 10 most haunted places in the U.S.

Jerome holds a Spook Night every year in October.  It began in 1953, long before Hippies discovered the town and another place to get high at 5,240 feet elevation.  There are guided Ghost Walks and Spirit Walks through the town and a Halloween dance that takes place in “Spook Hall.”  Even a visit by Elvis Presley in 1957 can not eclipse the power of eeriness, and you will not find a single sign saying ‘Elvis Stepped Here.”

The ghostly Grand Hotel above town.

The ghostly Grand Hotel above town.

But if there is one single place noted for its ghostliness it is the Jerome Grand Hotel, a large Mission-style building that looks down on the town from Giroux Street.   It is a former company hospital established by the United Verde Mine in 1927 and later closed for 44 years.  In 1994, the building was sold and turned into a hotel.  The first of the current 26 guest rooms opened two years later.  Some are said to have been “Death Rooms” where hospital patients were left to die.  A caretaker hanged himself in the boiler room, it is said.

I came up here with Nebra early this month to hike on the high mesa above town, Mingus Mountain.

In booking the room, I bypassed Ghost City Bed and Breakfast along serpentine Main Street below and instead chose the Jerome Grand.  The price was right, $135 for a room with a view of the valley.  I had virtually no clue about the hotel’s reputation for ghosts.

From a distance, the hotel looks like an attractive, modern place, setting there on a steep, 50-degree slope.  Painted gold and adorned with tasteful purple awnings, it is the focus of attention as you drive into town from the north.   But the guts of it reveal a different story.

The eventless Room 11.

The eventless Room 11.

Checking in at the Front Desk, I heard a buzzing sound.  The clerk stopped to use the ancient telephone switchboard with jacks and metal plugs.  No direct dial from the rooms.  All calls go though the switchboard.  Near the desk is a journal for guests to post comments, some of course dealing with ghosts on the premises.

Then there was the 1926 Otis elevator that moves at 50 feet per minute, taking all of 45 seconds to reach the 5th floor “penthouse.”  Old, yes, but apparently reliable.  The hotel says it has been “out of order” for only 4 hours and 15 minutes in the last decade.  You open a collapsing metal-screen to enter, insert your room key and punch the button to whatever floor you want.

We were handed two keys for Room 11.

Bypassing the elevator, we lugged  our baggage up the wide walkway of bare concrete, up one level to our room.

Restaurant with an eerie name.

Restaurant with an eerie name.

The weather had turned cold with a strong north wind, and the first thing I did was look for a heater.  But, no, there was only a radiator and it was turned off for the season.  Wind whistled through an opening in the a/c.  The doors to a tiny balcony were locked shut.  The transom above the door was open.  A long wood transom pole with a metal nub rested by the door.  I didn’t dare turn on the ceiling fan.  There was no wi-fi for my laptop.  Nebra did manage to set up a hot spot with her I-phone.  It was clean though and the distant views marvelous:  the valley city of Cottonwood, the Red Rock Country around Sedona and the still-snowy tippy-tops of the highest peaks in the state, the San Franciscos.

Before turning in we walked down into town, using the steep cement steps to reach Main Street a few hundred feet below.  It was still daylight and after window-shopping along the street we had a late supper at crowded Grapes.  We had to wait 30 minutes to get a remote seat upstairs but it was the only eatery open on a Sunday evening.

A frightening sight outside Room 11.

A frightening sight outside Room 11.

Back at the Grand we settled in for the night.  I looked over my maps of potential trails to hike the next day.  Nebra worried over her emails and neither of us stewed over the ghost-thing.   If anything, the wind had grown and now roared through the a/c.  Just down the hall, the Asylum Restaurant and Lounge was closing for the night and sounds of clanging and banging metal and loud voices caused me to close the transom.  Soon it was time to sleep and let the ghosts of the Grand have their moments.

I do not disbelieve in ghosts but I am skeptical of ghost stories in general.  And, should I really want to get into the swing of things, I should sign up for the hotel’s “Ghost Hunting” activities, or as the guest book says, “our ongoing investigation of the supernatural and paranormal.”  The hunt takes place on selected weeknights from 6 to 7:30 but, alas, our stay was on a Sunday.  Participants who cough up $20 are loaned an EMT meter, an infrared thermometer and digital camera.  And, I suppose, wished good luck.

If not the soundest of sleeps, mine certainly rated high up there for the night.  No moans, no chains dragging the floor, no personal items transported.  We awoke ready to hike.  The wind had died some as we walked down into town and had a so-so breakfast at the Mile High Grill.

There was one frightening moment, at least for me.

On the way back up to Room 11, I rounded the corner of the stairwell and came face to face with a horribly twisted figure in the semi-darkness of the hallway.  This thing, if you could call it that, appeared suffering severe mental anguish curled up in a wheelchair.  It was small as a child but the face was that of a man in torment.

My breathing stopped as I came to a sudden halt.  It took several seconds before I realized it was a life-like model made to scare guests.  I think I would have preferred ghosts in the night.


















Too many thin men

An intriguing title.

An intriguing title.

I am reading a novel by C. W. Smith.  I picked it up years ago, a used paperback whose original price was one dollar, 50 cents.  It is a powerful story of the collision between two cultures here in the Southwest.  Mexican and Anglo.  But the reason I purchased it, or so I believe now, is that I was intrigued by the title, “Thin Men of Haddam.”

Researching the title, I found it came from a poem by a New England man, Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

It goes like this:

O thin men of Haddam / why do you imagine golden birds? /  Do you not see how the blackbird / walks around the feet / of the women around you?

Haddam is a small city on the Connecticut River south of the poet’s hometown in Hartford.  It is unclear in my slender research why Stevens chose Haddam as the start of the the 7th stanza.  But “thin men” is a symbol of spiritual bankruptcy.  Men chasing the god of gold when the things of real value rest under toe.

This is one of the many things wrong with a spiritless America today.  We have too many thin men.  Too many thin men, in my mind, equates to Third World country.

No soul, no depth, we play our silly little digitized games.  While we are distracted by our incessant mania to be connected to someone at all times, we the thin men of Adam allow other thin men to gobble up power, erode our freedom and march us ever backward toward slavery which is what oligarchy really means, at least to me.  All, while democracy dies except in name.

Sometimes just the title of a book can help you think.  Too bad it doesn’t make us act.